A Forgotten Tool: Improving Lodging Security With Behavioral Detection and Analysis

Behavioral detection and analysis - a forgotten tool

Last year, a hotel guest in Las Vegas committed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history when he killed 58 people and injured another 422 by shooting them from his hotel room window. More common are the occurrences of fraud, theft, drug and human trafficking, prostitution, and assault that happen on a daily basis. In addition to the physical and mental harm caused by these incidents, there may be legal, financial, and reputational costs to the establishments where they occur.

To address these vulnerabilities, lodging facilities have traditionally relied on a layered approach to physical security. Mutually supporting security countermeasures—including CCTV, locks, and staff dedicated to the security function—exist at the perimeter of the property, entrances, and key access points (e.g., the front desk) to deter, delay, disrupt, or deny the human threat. To build upon these existing practices and to ensure that security is both an organizational philosophy and practice for all staff, basic behavioral detection and analysis (BDA) techniques should be added to existing security programs.

At its core, BDA is simply paying attention to others and identifying “out of the ordinary” behaviors based on the 
situation or environment. Oftentimes BDA is associated with the field of criminal justice, where individuals are specially trained to identify “clusters” of specific human behaviors that suggest a possible threat or criminality. Some of these behavioral cues are based on universally recognized facial expressions of emotion—joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and contempt—that all humans show, irrespective of national origin, race, gender, and age. Other behavioral cues are based on body language and physical actions that may suggest aggression, deception, and/or assaultive behaviors. Still other cues are based on verbal statements (or lack thereof) and/or tone of voice. All professions can use the basics of BDA; it just takes awareness. In fact, all humans have an innate ability to recognize and understand certain behaviors of others. For example, you probably know when your significant other or child is stressed out, fearful, angry, or being deceptive. If you are adept at behavioral detection, you may even be able to tell when someone you meet for the first time does not care for you based solely on his or her facial expressions or body language. Unfortunately, many individuals ignore or dismiss potential threat clues they detect with excuses such as, “It’s probably nothing,” “I don’t have time,” or “It’s not my job.” In this modern threat environment, employees now need to reverse these thoughts more along the lines of: “It may be something,” “I need to take the time,” and “The safety and security of guests and staff are part of my job.”

The BDA process relies upon four elements: (1) determining a baseline; (2) identifying anomalies; (3) resolving anomalies; and (4) telling. The acronym that can be used to remember these elements is DIRT. Sometimes threats are easily and quickly analyzed by the intuitive side of your brain—for example, the presence of a weapon or assaultive/disruptive behavior. Other times, it may be more difficult and require using the analytical side of your brain to interpret potential danger. The key to effective BDA is acknowledging your gut instincts (intuition) and allowing your brain to ask questions (analysis), without arbitrarily dismissing it as “probably nothing.”


BDA is ideally suited for lodging facilities. All staff members—shuttle drivers, porter/valets, concierges, desk clerks, housekeepers, wait staff, managers, maintenance staff, and groundskeepers—encounter individuals in a variety of situations at various times. Each of these interactions provides an opportunity for staff to hear, see, and assess an individual’s behavior. However, to detect and assess these behaviors, staff must be diligent and engaging.

There are certain locations (stress points) that tend to elicit behavioral responses for those with questionable intent. These stress points involve specific functional and service-oriented locations or activities that provide staff members with opportunities to interact, observe, and assess how the person responds to their presence. It should be emphasized that stress points in lodging facilities are innocuous—they preexist due to the flow of activities and security practices. With a solid understanding of the BDA process, staff members will be able to make assessments during the course of their normal interactions with patrons. And in those cases where the individual’s behavior is not a threat per se, the identification of stress, anxiety, or fear and acting on them can improve the guest’s stay. It should be noted that these interactions and conversations are not interrogations or invasive inquiries. Quite the contrary. They are designed to promote positive interpersonal contact and elicit information that will either help determine if individuals are acting suspiciously or are merely in need of assistance. Consider the following example:

It is 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in late June in Miami. A man wearing a heavy coat and clutching a small carry-on bag in his arms hastily leaves the hotel shuttle, enters the establishment, physically avoids other guests, and brusquely refuses the assistance of the bellhop offering to carry his bag. While standing behind another patron at the front desk, he constantly looks at his cell phone, avoids eye contact with other guests, has a distressed look on his face, is breathing heavily, and is letting out audible sighs. A staff member approaches and engages the man in a brief conversation: “Welcome to the ACME Hotel. How are you today? The wait shouldn’t be long. Is there anything I can get for you while you are waiting? What brings you to Miami? May I take your bag for you?” Depending on the person’s body language and responses to the open-ended questions, the staff member might determine that the man is from an colder climate (reason for wearing a heavy coat), has a family heirloom/photo album in his bag (reason for holding it close), and is in town for a funeral or to visit a terminally ill family member (reason for looking distressed). Or, if the person’s responses are dismissive, hostile, or threatening, these verbal and/or non-verbal cues can suggest that the person may pose a threat.

At this point, these observations (depending on policy) should be reported to security personnel, management, or law enforcement for further monitoring or intervention. In this case, however, the guest is in Miami for a family funeral. Knowing this, staff can proactively address the guest’s distress, doing what they do best: ensuring that he has a positive experience at the establishment during a difficult time in his life.

As shown in this example, simple BDA is a “win-win” situation for lodging facilities. Identifying and assessing abnormal or questionable behaviors serves to identify potential threats or customers who may be under stress. In either situation, hotel staff can then concentrate on their core mission of providing excellent customer service and enhancing its reputation as a friendly and caring place to stay.

Today’s threat environment requires increased levels of vigilance. Proactive BDA practices can be integrated into any existing safety and security program. Not only are these practices reasonable, but they are critical for risk management. While most physical security measures are static, the use of BDA adds an additional layer of dynamic security that can help detect suspicious activities and threats. All that needs to be done is for management to promote a culture of vigilance, “trusting your gut,” and looking for DIRT. If staff members know what to look for, how to properly engage, and are encouraged to do so, safety and security becomes a living and breathing organism that is pervasive throughout the establishment.

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